The Grammar of the Gospel

prepositions.pngI have been doing some teaching at a local university, primarily to international students, and in that process, have found myself spending a lot of time explaining English prepositions. A friend of mine says, “If you’ve mastered prepositions, you’ve mastered English.” That’s because the rules governing which preposition we use and when are virtually nonsensical.

If you’re inside you stand in the corner; if you’re outside you stand on the corner. The bus is around the corner.

“I’m sitting on the bus.” Are you? Get down. That’s dangerous.

Martin Luther, in trying to describe the presence of God in the eucharist in a way that was sufficiently un-Catholic called it “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. I’ve parsed the German of that sentence, and I still have no idea what he means.

But it occurs to be that a life lived well is all about the prepositions. If you get the prepositions wrong, you’re going to get life wrong. Most church-goers say they believe “in” Jesus. By this, they mean a consent to the doctrine of his existence. That creed is, according to the Bible, meaningless and irrelevant (James 2:19).

“In” is not the critical preposition. A life lived well is a life lived from Jesus and for Jesus. Belief in, as it is usually used, is just an acknowledgement of present realities. What matters is that we understand the origin of our present reality and then our destination. If we come from Jesus, we do not just know he is real; we make him the foundation, the cause, and the source of who we are. If we live for Jesus, it means our life’s ultimate goal, its telos and destination, are to honor him. We have an initial design and an ultimate purpose – from and for.

The existence of a bus does not tell you who you are greeting at the station or where you might headed yourself. You can believe in the bus, ineffectually. But to know where the bus came from and where it is going are the only matters of consequence.

Jesus Definitely Wasn’t Married

WifeAn ancient fragment was first publicized to the modern world in September of 2012 which features the words, “Jesus said to them my wife….” This created a frenzy of speculation about the possibility that Jesus was married.  I am absolutely sure he was not.  I can also say that, as an evangelical Protestant, it really doesn’t matter to me theologically whether or not he was.  (For my celibate brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church’s leadership, I could see how there would be more concern.)  But though his marital status doesn’t matter, it’s absolutely critical that everyone know he was single.  Here’s why.

Time magazine reports this week that the document is not a forgery, but actually dates back to the “ancient” world (whenever that began and ended).  The Harvard Theological Review reports (vol. 107, issue 2) that the document may date from somewhere around 741AD, some 700 years after Jesus’ life, give or take.  This seems to be making the news despite the fact that his marital status has no theological bearing.  What matters is the critical thinking skills of a modern society which swallows feeble ideas whole.  It makes a sad statement about our gullibility, and it leads to implications that shouldn’t be drawn.  Specifically:

1.  700 years later is a stretch in terms of reliability.  This would be roughly the equivalent of us finding a document dating from 1983 claiming that St. Francis was married.  It’s a little hard to be convinced.

2.  There is not multiple attestation, and no subsequent confirmation.  One fragment, and a late one at that, shouldn’t merit serious consideration.

3.  Marriage was the norm for Jewish men in Jesus’ day.  It would not have been scandalous for him to have been married, and thus there would have been no need to keep it secret if it were in fact the case.  It also isn’t odd that he was single, as even the Apostle Paul encouraged singleness, using himself as an example (1 Cor. 7).

4.  The gospel writers include some really embarrassing stories about Jesus’ life (baptized though sinless, fighting with the religious leaders who should have endorsed him, rejected by eye witnesses, mocked, cursed to hang on a tree – Deut. 21:23, strange post-resurrection sightings that weren’t immediately recognizable).  They really don’t hold back on provocative and incriminating details.  The idea that there was a wife-hiding conspiracy doesn’t jibe with the nature of the gospels.

5.  Luke claims to be doing research on Jesus’ life in the first generation, and a marriage would have been an impossible oversight.

Here’s why the fragment matters.  It opens up the implication to casual modern listeners that the history of Jesus has always been mistaken, and that there are secrets about him left untold, making the biblical story appear to be an official front masking the true story.  And this is the real damage done by the publicity of this document and by the gnostic writings generally.  The Bible is the real thing.  Its story is so scandalous and conspiratorial that it doesn’t need a scandal to make it juicy.  There was no great cover-up in its writing or compilation that changed the meaning of Jesus’ life.  There aren’t parts of it that are waiting to be discovered in order to complete our picture of Jesus.  We know of him what we need to know to believe in him and to live faithfully in his name.  Whatever else the Bible is, it’s good enough.  No new discovery is going to change the power it still has call people from death to life.

So for the record, he wasn’t married, and if we are clear-headed thinkers, it ought to take more than a never before heard of scrap of paper written 700 years later to make us think the biblical authors just forgot that detail.